Games Are Serious Business

Fate of the World is a serious game from Red Redemption, a ragtag band of game developers who built a climate change simulator based on scientific research conducted at Oxford University. It’s the closest approximation of a “serious game” philosopher’s stone I’ve had the pleasure of playing; pour your base need for entertainment and challenge in through your keyboard, and out pours knowledge. The federally-funded developers at Red Redemption have gamified a climate change primer, but since we find that word ridiculous let us instead address Fate of the World as an especially excellent example of behavioral engineering in ecological education.

We’ve written at length about how to appreciate and appropriate the best parts of competitive multiplayer games like StarCraft II and Marvel vs. Capcom 3. It’s good stuff, but I can’t contribute anything of value besides “practice more, suck less.” I play games to explore and experiment rather than conquer, so world simulators like SimCity, Populous and Black & White have always scratched my childlike itch to dig around in the dirt of a digital world. I prefer the playground to the practice ring, and Fate of the World purports to be a playground with purpose.

Here’s how your typical game flows: you (as leader of the fictional global gendarmerie GEO) choose a scenario, recruit GEO agents in countries which accept GEO rule, and assign each agent a feel-good task like starting a job-sharing initiative, opening public healthcare clinics or funding biofuel research. These tasks are represented as cards in decks, one global initiative deck and five additional initiative decks with specific agendas like politics, technology or environmental protection. Pick your pawns, play your cards and hit “Next Turn” to advance the game clock by five years. Saving the world is easy, breezy beautiful thanks to GEO!


 

Each quinquennial turn is punctuated by updates on the global temperature and global emissions, as well as warnings when resource shortages (oil, gas, electricity etc.) and significant global events occur. Your first few decades are mercifully quiet, which gives you plenty of time to get in the global saviour groove and get a handle on the economics of ecological savoir-faire before shit starts to get real. After every turn each card in play demands cash money for upkeep, and every nation that accepts GEO rule contributes a a comparatively modest sum to the GEO budget.

That’s why Fate of the World is so exciting and so dangerous: playing the game has given me a false sense of superiority and eco-sociological scholarship that may negatively affect my future decisions. In my last play session, I pushed the entire world to adopt nuclear power in an attempt to deadlock global emission of greenhouse gases. It worked; instead of failing due to massive unemployment and famine caused by skyrocketing fossil fuel prices, I failed because of rampant stagflation and a plummeting HDI (Human Development Index, a measure of education, luxury and general well-being colloquially known as the How Dope? Indicator).

Yet if I had control of environmental policy in the real world, we would all be dead. Forget about the tsunami in Japan; the network of ramshackle nuclear reactors I erected in Haiti would have imploded in 2010, spreading deadly quantities of radioactive particles out from the Caribbean across the Atlantic and into our lungs. As the Fukushima Daiichi reactors degrade we’re seeing plenty of arguments erupt in the popular media over nuclear policy, and the lion’s share of those arguments are misinformed overreactions from citizens with only a basic grasp of climatology. Thanks to Fate of the World, I now have a basic grasp of climatology, and a little knowledge is a dangerous thing without an appreciation for your ignorance.

None of this would be a concern if Red Redemption didn’t bill their game as a reality simulator, a “real game with real consequences.” Unfortunately, the allure of Fate of the World is quickly tarnished when you approach it as just a game. The most exciting part of play is managing finite resources, weighing decisions and nervously hitting the “Next Turn” button in the hope that somehow, somewhere you didn’t fuck up the planet. You usually fail, but there are so many charts and graphs of socioeconomic data to sort through that you’re convinced somehow, somewhere you can find the perfect social balance to keep the world from imploding. I suppose the folks at Red Redemption hoped that baiting this hook with so many snippets of real-world scientific data might spur players to do their own research when the game is over, and I hope they’re right; but games are no substitute for comprehensive education, and I worry that the rise of serious games like Fate of the World will encourage our generation to treat serious social issues like a game.

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